Where Local and Global Appetites Collide

Book Review: Back of the House, Scott Haas

Book Review
Book Review

The book, Back of the House – the Secret Life of a Restaurant, provides a highly personal bordering on insane look into the back of a restaurant. While Anthony Bourdain’s best selling Kitchen Confidential was seen through the eyes of a kitchen professional (chef/restaurant owner), Back of the House is written by Scott Haas, clinical psychologist and food writer.

Haas has the good fortune to hang out at Craigie on Main in Cambridge and shadow chef/restaurant owner Tony Maws and his revolving door staff.

I think anyone who enjoys fine dining, people watching, and what makes people tick and in this case — explode — will find this book a provocative read.

I give credit to Tony Maws because this book defines him as a creative, crazy genius who has a penchant for consistently yelling four letter words and sometimes treating his staff like crap. It doesn’t put Maws in the best light as a person but as a James Beard award-winning chef — he shines.

At times Maws puts some of his staff on a pedestal giving them confidence. And sometimes in the same night or hour, he debases them, almost like brainwashing. Maws frequently complains about lack of discipline among his staff. It reminded me a tad of being in the military because the hours were long and demanding and the atmosphere was – at times – combative.

Maws himself seems to have something to prove – perhaps to his father or to the people in his life who said he would never succeed. This could be why he works 90 hours a week. He has a lot to say about the millennial generation, most of it not good. Older people will not be working in the back of the house because how could they handle that intense pressure and back breaking labor for so many hours in a day. It’s the 20-something crowd who paid for the whopping culinary school fees with dreams of being rock star chefs only to be earning slightly more than minimum wage to work in this kind of atmosphere learning from the best and hoping for the best.  People working at Craigie on Main thought it was perfectly normal to go out for drinks at 1:30 a.m.

The author paints the picture of Maws as a creative genius / rock star of the culinary world. I certainly wanted to eat there as he used the best ingredients and unusual combinations of ingredients, sometimes never repeating the same dish the same way. Another problem with Maws is that he doesn’t appear to have consistent systems in place so the cooks are never confident that they are doing the right thing.

On a trip to New York with Maws, Haas introduces Maws to some chefs who do trust their chefs’ instincts; who do have systems in place; who talk respectfully to their staff. The chefs are Dave Pasternack (Esca), David Humm (Eleven Madison Park), Drew Nieporent (Tribeca Grill), Daniel Boulud (Daniel), and Thomas Keller (The French Laundry). Note: these chefs own more than one restaurant; this is a sampling.

While Haas’ 18 month stint, there was a big turnover. Perhaps that’s the new normal – the long hours, the crazy shifts, the hard physical labor in close quarters is conducive to turnover.

Haas seems like a likeable guy. He treats everyone respectfully and gets to have many tastes and even helps the cooks at times. Around Christmas he cooked a staff meal. He’s not afraid to ask the hard questions or the truly personal questions to Maws’ mother, father, and wife.

Reading the book was like a roller coaster of emotions from page to page, one never knows if it’s a good day or a bad day. Haas ends the book on a diplomatic note.

You can learn more about him at shrinkinthekitchen.com

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